Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The child's welfare

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TRACIA Owen's tragic young life was marked profoundly and early by her family and community, Little Grand Rapids. But the head of one child welfare organization believes the teenager might be alive today had she been able to remain in Little Grand. The evidence indicates otherwise. A report of an inquest into the life of Tracia Owen, who killed herself at 14 in 2005, concludes she stayed too long on the isolated, impoverished northern reserve.

Tracia Owen was taken into care at two months old, after a nurse at Little Grand warned that leaving her with her alcoholic parents was dangerous. Her life was pocked by a dizzying array of placements with grandmothers, other family members and in and out of her parents' home. All told, Tracia was moved more than 65 times -- the equivalent of being moved every two or three months -- including being returned 17 times to her parents. The agency responsible for protecting her would not give up on the hope she could be reunited with her mother and father, who could not stop drinking.

Provincial court Judge John Guy's report makes clear that the federal government has failed to fund adequate services in native communities to support child welfare agencies struggling to do good despite epidemic poverty, addictions and family dysfunction. Tracia could not find a permanent foster home in Little Grand and there are no good programs for families in crisis. This, the inquest heard, is typical of many remote reserves. The provincial government has been beefing up agency resources of late, but Ottawa funds social services on reserves based on population, not need. Little Grand's needs require a budget of about $1 million, but it gets about a third of that, the inquest was told.

That fact is at the core of the comments by Elsie Flette, head of the Southern Manitoba Child and Family Services Authority, who opined that Tracia Owen might not have killed herself if she had not been moved to the city. Yes, if there were adequate social services on reserves, perhaps most children at risk could stay in their communities. But as Judge Guy said, that is not the reality. He found no fault with the services Tracia Owen got once she was moved to Winnipeg at 12 years old.

Why did Tracia Owen kill herself? Many reasons can be found but the inquest pointed to a critical event: Shortly before her suicide, she disclosed the history of sexual abuse at the hands of an older sibling. Her family reacted badly and she fell apart, even as her workers saw her making progress.

Two senior officials at the aboriginal child welfare agency testified they do everything possible to prevent separating a child from their family, community and culture because that damages children, who inevitably get "lost." Judge Guy made the obvious observation that at some point, the family becomes secondary to the interests of a child.

The federal government must step up with adequate funding for the gargantuan effort required to build a network of reliable foster homes in native communities. But that, as Judge Guy noted, is not the existing reality. The inquest found there are many Tracia Owens out there. They need permanent, stable homes. Agencies must be prepared to remove children from their families and communities when the need arises. That moment arose and passed many times in Tracia Owen's life.

 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 18, 2008

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